Watch closely Thursday. Watch LeBron James continue to carry his team on the road, where they have struggled but he has been magnificent, game after game, day after day, his greatness still somehow expanding and crystallizing before us.
Watch Kobe Bryant, too, as he tries to carry his floundering Lakers’ squad by willing them and himself to places he can still go but now they cannot.
Watch, because it is the closest we are likely to get to what should have been. Remember Bird-Magic? Remember Wilt-Russell? Remember the idea of the two players most dominating their era facing one another in the playoffs – in the Finals – and infusing the game itself with some of their transcendent power?
There was a time when it was like gravity, the knowledge they would find one another. It was magnetic. It was destiny. The greatest found ways to face each other on the biggest stage, and then, and only then, did their greatness come into such sharp relief that it changed the game, and them, and us, too.
That will not happen. Not in this decade. Not in this era. Not, at least, for Kobe and LeBron. There will be no Finals meeting, no playoff faceoff, no coming-together under the klieg lights of postseason basketball under which basketball itself shines brighter because those two stars so often orbited by everyone else come suddenly into contact on the court. We have been robbed of that, somehow. We will not have our own Magic-Bird even if we have been given players of that magnitude at the same time who have each been championship-caliber.
Kobe Bryant and his 30,619 points? They will almost certainly not face LeBron James and a level of play that has earned LeBron three MVP awards. Not outside of regular-season games like Thursday night’s, when the Heat head to Staples Center to play a 17-21 Lakers team that is simply lost. The Lakers are too much of a mess, too much of an “old damn team,” to use Kobe’s words, so lowly they are more concerned now about making the playoffs than making the NBA Finals.
The Heat, despite their recent struggles, are the clear favorites for another Finals berth, but the Western Conference is a mountain the Lakers almost surely can no longer climb. It is too steep and they are too feeble for the task. Too many teams rise above them. The Thunder, the Clippers, the Spurs, the Grizzlies, perhaps even the Warriors – all are obstacles the Lakers would be unlikely to best, if they even get the chance.
No, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James will not have that moment in the Finals to face one another down and battle, head-to-head, will-to-will, for a title. Not this year and probably not ever, given the Lakers’ age and issues.
If this seems inconceivable, it’s because it kind of is.
Either LeBron or Kobe has played in each of the past six NBA Finals. They are the best players of this decade, and until Kevin Durant emerged to edge out (maybe) Kobe they were the best two players in the league year after year. Both Kobe and LeBron will finish their careers as top 10 all-time players, all-time greats who shined at the same time, won and made NBA Finals at the same time, but somehow could not do so against the other.
Everyone expected this confrontation. Nike did a series of Kobe-LeBron trash-talking puppet commercials in 2009. Talking heads spoke of the eventuality with reverential certainty. I moved from Kansas City to Miami two years ago to cover Miami’s new super team, and my FOXSports.com colleague encamped with the Lakers that same season, because we were so sure those teams were on a collision course for one another.
But no. LeBron could not get past a young Dwight Howard in 2009 or the old Celtics in 2010, and when, finally, his version of the Big Three trumped the Celtics and all other Eastern Conference comers in 2011 the Lakers could not withstand the Dallas Mavericks. Same thing last year when LeBron won his first title and Kobe couldn’t keep up with the young Thunder.
So watch tonight and see what might have been. Watch LeBron James in perhaps the greatest season he has ever had trying single-handedly to sober up a Heat team reeling, still, from a severe championship hangover.
Watch Kobe try to place on his shoulders a group of guys who are not right together by shooting shot after shot, racking up point after point, doing all he can to squeeze from his aging greatness and unrivaled passion a team that is worthy of his talents and his desire.
Watch a natural-born killer (Kobe) and a prodigy still finding his assassin’s edge (LeBron) stalk one another, play after play, two giants of the game so large that on the same stage in the same space they somehow make everyone else bigger, too. Watch and try to enjoy it even if it is a January game, not the June version we deserve.
Does it matter that LeBron is 11-6 against Kobe Bryant in regular-season games and that he has won 10 of the past 13? Or that he has outscored him in 10 of those 17 matchups?
It does. It does because it’s the closest we’ll get to seeing the two greatest players of their era play one another in a way that counts. LeBron is fighting to get his team right on the road, Kobe to get his team right at all. They will both be playing for something beyond their own stats or egos. They will not look past the other, January or otherwise.
So watch tonight and see what will not be, and what should have been, and enjoy it. Enjoy two greats of the game whose time together on the NBA stage is drawing to an end, without the final scene we have all waited for, leaving us now with the near-certainty we’ll never see Kobe-vs.-LeBron outside nights like tonight.